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I love a book that expands my “to be read” list, and Greek to Me: Adventures of the Comma Queen by Mary Norris did that. Not only does she recommend some classic books about Greece (such as Lawrence Durrell‘s and Patrick Leigh Fermor‘s work) but also, she writes eloquently about Homer and I have had Caroline Alexander’s translation of The Iliad on my shelf for some time.

Mostly it’s a joy to read about someone’s passions, and for Norris, the Greek language, literature, and Greece itself are longtime passions. She was a young copy editor at The New Yorker when she first began learning Greek, and her boss, Ed Stringham, encouraged her and even agreed it would help her work so it could be paid for by the magazine. He encouraged her to travel and suggested things to read (like the books mentioned above). Wouldn’t it be wonderful if everyone came across a mentor like that, who sees a spark and fans it?

Norris intersperses her writing about Greece and Greek with writing abut herself and her family, but this book doesn’t hit you over the head with interpersonal drama or devolve into navel gazing. Instead Norris is thoughtful, observant, introspective at times without being self-absorbed, curious about her family relationships without playing them up for effect. In short, she writes an intelligent, beautiful book that is informative and entertaining. Even though I went through a Greece phase of my own — we took a family trip when I read that there were deals to be had after the Athens Olympics, and I made sure the kids and I were immersed in all things Greek for about six months before we went — I learned a good bit reading Greek to Me, especially regarding connections between Greek and English.

Norris’s descriptive language is evocative and also makes the foreign familiar, as with this passage about the earthquake restorations at the Daphni monastery:  “The scaffolding inside made it look like trapeze school . . . by now multiple earthquakes had shattered the mosaics, which had collapsed onto the floor in jumbles of tesserae. The restorers’ work was of a magnitude I could barely comprehend: they were putting the Almighty together again.” Or this one, about the view from the Kalamitsi Hotel: “The sun left a pink smear above the distant gray-blue peninsula, and the sea was like a bolt of ice-blue satin, with matching sky, except that the colors of the air were not as nuanced, having no surface, existing as pure distance measured in light. In the grove in the foreground the trunks of olive trees twisted seductively A tongue of sea eased in from the Messenian Gulf below a steep hill covered with pines, plane trees, and pointed cypresses . . . .” It goes on, but you should read the book for the full effect.

If you’re staycationing this summer, this would be a great book to take you away, and if you’re planning a trip to Greece, this is a don’t miss. But even if neither of those describes you, this is a wonderful read. I wanted to sit down with the author over some coffee (or ouzo!) and hear more stories, take in her fascinating experiences, and enjoy her voice after I reached the end. In fact, I never looked for her first book, Between You & Me, about her time at The New Yorker when it came out, but I’ve added that to my list as well.

 

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I wasn’t able to see the film version of Red Joan while it was playing at my local indie theater, so when I went to Los Angeles I downloaded the Europa Editions novel by Jennie Rooney. I enjoyed it, although the ending didn’t do much for me. Still, a quick skim of the film reviews indicates the book was better, although Judi Dench gets good reviews for her part as the main character.

Joan is in her 80s, taking ballroom dancing and watercolor classes and enjoying living in England near her son and his family after many years in Australia. In the first few pages of the book, she reads an old friend’s obituary and MI5 agents come to her door to take her away for questioning — not in his death, precisely, but in relation to new evidence they have from a Soviet defector that Joan and her friend were spies.

Joan’s thoughts make it pretty clear — as does the title — that she was. Rooney uses the questioning, which takes place over a few days, as the mechanism for going back to Joan’s youth, her days as a physics student at Cambridge in the late 1930s, and her romance with Leo, a Russian emigre, and friendship with Leo’s cousin, Sonya. The cousins take Joan to communist meetings, which she points out to her interrogators was pretty common in those days; lots of intellectuals in Europe admired, at the very least, theoretical communism, and Stalin’s crimes were not yet fully understood. She never joins the party, even though Leo calls her his “little comrade.” The war comes, Joan decides to do her part, and Leo gets her a job at a metals lab in Cambridge, where she meets Max, the lab director, and an unhappily married man.

As Joan recalls her life, prompted by documents shown to her by the MI5 agents, her son, Nick, who conveniently happens to be a lawyer, finds out she’s a suspect and rushes to help her. As it dawns on him that she really did pass secrets from Britain’s nuclear program he is incensed. This conflict allows Rooney to slowly spin out the story of Joan’s loves and friendships, the way she was manipulated, and the choices she made. I appreciated that she is presented as neither purely a victim nor purely a traitor. For Joan, whose father lost a limb in WWI, and who lived through WWII, nuclear deterrence means peace, while for Nick, it is madness. While much has been made of the fact that Rooney credits a news story about an 87 year old English woman revealed to have been a Soviet spy as inspiration, she says in the author’s note that there is little else her character and the “granny spy” share and that she was also inspired by other historical events and people.

While as I said the ending wasn’t my favorite, overall this was an interesting read. I enjoy historical fiction and I felt like Rooney hit all the right notes. The ideas the characters grapple with are more nuanced than the usual good versus evil that often appears in books set in or after WWII. There is much for a book group to discuss, starting with the fact that Joan acts according to her values, believing that she is “sharing” secrets, not stealing them. I was intrigued enough to want to read late over the weekend to find out what happened.

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“Herein lies the tragedy of the age: not that men are poor, — all men know something of poverty; not that men are wicked, — who is good? not that men are ignorant, — what is Truth? Nay, but that men know so little of men.”  That quote sums up for me the essence of W.E.B. Du Bois‘ The Souls of Black Folk, which my book club is reading. If men would just know men, “double consciousness” would not be a way of life for people of color — a way of living that splits people in two, the person they are and the person the racist world sees them as.

Du Bois wrote this book around the turn of the 20th century; Jim Crow was the law of the land, and the initial hope and promise of the Freedmen’s Bureau was a distant memory. Du Bois’ descriptions of life in south Georgia (the “black belt”) are haunting to me because we spent five years living just 45 minutes north of Albany in Americus, and the legacy of systemic inequity is still evident, or was within the last two decades when we were there. The places where each race attends their own churches, their own schools (although not officially, but in many parts of rural Georgia, including the town where we lived, many white families send their kids to private school and the percentages of black and white children in public school don’t come anywhere near matching those of the population at large), their own entertainment — still existed when my family lived there in the early 2000s.

I was also struck by the chapters on individuals’ struggles to live as their true selves — Of Alexander Crummell and Of the Coming of John — which are especially powerful positioned after essays on reconstruction, the economy of share crop cotton farming, education, etc. I struggled, if I’m honest, to get through some of the history and sociology; important as it is to understand, it’s dense and difficult. Anytime I read about reconstruction I wonder what would have happened if Lincoln lived?

As I’ve thought many times recently when trying to read a more diverse history of the U.S. than what I was taught, it’s appalling that public schools don’t fully teach American history. There is so much I am only learning in more depth as an adult that was glossed over in a few sentences in my childhood history books. Someone I know told me recently that every so often he looks at 5th grade social studies books and checks to see if Martin Luther King is mentioned in a sidebar — rather than having his own chapter.

King, at least, is a household name. What about Alexander Crummell, who I’d never heard of until reading The Souls of Black Folk, or A. Philip Randolph, a man who is among the most important labor and civil rights pioneers in this country but I’ll bet many of you have never heard of (I only learned about him at a free breakfast about using online sources for historical research at the ACRL conference)?

It’s never too late to add “narrative plentitude” to one’s understanding so I’m going to keep learning about privilege and its lack.

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The subtitle of John Gilbert Winant’s memoir of his time as US Ambassador to Britain during WWII is “An account of a stewardship.” Several years ago I read Lynne Olson’s terrific history of this time, Citizens of London and I became a fan of the unassuming Winant. His view of ambassadorship as stewardship is one of the reasons why: he was a public servant, who took seriously his call to serve the greater good and not American interests alone.

Winant opens the book, addressed to Geoffrey Story Smith godfather of Winant’s son John, by explaining that he is writing from the flat in the embassy building in London, which he is moving out of, reflecting on the momentous years he’s lived there. “One of the deeper reasons for wanting to write to you is the growing disillusionment of today; which not only dims and obscures the present, but is trying to cloud the past.” He wants to set the record straight: men and women did selfless things, quietly heroic things, to defeat fascism.

What’s especially moving about that line  is that Winant committed suicide around the time Letter from Grosvenor Square was published. The book is so full of kind and admiring observations, even about people who don’t come across as well in other accounts, like Roosevelt. Winant seemed to see the better nature of people, and to principles of fairness and justice, including fair labor practices. After describing how women contributed to the British war effort, he notes, “The part women played is still a binding force in the light and life of human progress.”

Because this is a first person account and not a history, it’s incomplete — Winant tells the things he felt were memorable or notable about his work, and the work of those around him. He explains some details of U.S. farm policy that made it possible to supply England with more food, but he doesn’t talk about his son being shot down and taken prisoner by the Germans, except briefly in the opening chapter addressed to Smith. And he tells a number of stories about Churchill and other British leaders but speaks particularly admiringly of ordinary British people who carried on with their lives regardless of the relentless German bombing.

If you want the full story of Winant’s time as ambassador, don’t miss Citizens of London, and if you want a glimpse into the generous spirit of the man who spent his entire adult life in the service of others, read Letter from Grosvenor Square.

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I finished KooKooLand by Gloria Norris this afternoon, feeling like I just wanted to get it over with. One Book One Manchester has made KooKooLand our 2019 selection. It’s a good book, and the voice and writing are powerful. But it’s not the kind of book I usually seek out (although a quick perusal of my last several reads might cause you to question that — I seem to be on a literary tour of the worst of human nature lately) and for me finishing it quickly was like ripping off a bandaid — I wanted to get on with it so it wouldn’t hurt so much. That said, Norris writes about hard things with incredible empathy, never veering into sensation or trope. The humanity with which she portrays nearly every person in this hard story is truly admirable. And this book is about surviving about the most dysfunctional upbringing imaginable and becoming your best self anyway.

KooKooLand is Norris’s memoir of growing up in Manchester, daughter of Jimmy and Shirley. They were friends with the Piasecny family, whose patriarch, Hank, murdered his ex-wife and whose daughter, Susan, in turn murdered him years later. Norris got to know Susan again as an adult, and shares the story of this woman who successfully sued New Hampshire to force the state to build a women’s prison, and who struggled with the legacy of abuse and mental illness in her family until her final years.

One reason Norris is drawn to Susan is that she knows “That could have been me.” Jimmy is nearly as violent as Hank, and in fact threatened to kill Shirley and his daughters pretty regularly. He breaks laws regularly, and involves the rest of the family. When Norris was a child, Susan was someone she looked up to who seemed to have everything ahead of her. Once they reconnect when Norris is an adult, she realized Susan “had already given me everything I needed years ago — a road map for my life. Just because she didn’t follow the map herself didn’t make it any less valuable.”

Norris writes this graciously, as I said, about just about everyone in this story. She seems like a remarkably open-hearted and generous person. Which kept me reading. It’s a moving story. At the end she thanks her immediate family members who all supported her writing this book. Norris must be one incredible human to gain their trust to write so openly  and honestly about their lives. I can’t wait to meet her next fall!

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Last Friday I checked out a book for the weekend: American Spythe debut novel by Lauren Wilkinson. It’s cerebral in the same way that John le Carré‘s novels are — very much informed by the psychology and strategy of spy-craft and what makes spies tick. It introduced me to a part of Cold War history overlooked by history books that focus predominantly on white males (the kind of textbooks which dominate the American education system, or did when I was growing up). And it’s a page turner.

The spy of the title is a a black woman named Marie Mitchell, raised by New Yorkers of Caribbean descent. In the book’s opening pages she engages in a fight to the death with an intruder at her home in Connecticut. The rest of the book takes place in Martinique, where Marie’s mother lives, and where she flees with her twin sons with the help of a family friend. Once there, Marie begins a series of journals meant to tell the boys her story — their stories, too — in case she doesn’t return from trying to put an end to the threat that stalks her. We learn that she worked for the FBI, doing well until she ended up back in New York where her boss held her back with menial work. She was recruited by the CIA to get close to Thomas Sankara, President of Burkina Faso, and that story is what led to the attack on her life.

It’s both the terrific heroine — the merit of any good spy story is in its lead spy — and the incorporation of real events and people that I found compelling. It’s also a book which my grandmother would have loved. She introduced me to le Carré, and she loved books that had, as she put it “not one extra word,” by which she meant writing that was not only excellent, but contained no superfluous flourishes, spare storylines, or other distractions from good storytelling.

My grandmother was also a feminist and this book is full of wise observations about womanhood, sisterhood, motherhood. Marie writes to her boys about a conversation she has with her oldest friend, a man she loves but is not in a relationship with: “He exhaled slowly, clearly frustrated with me. I didn’t care. There have been a lot of men in this world who have tried to shape it by getting it to conform to their own ideology . . . . I want something else. I want to form you into agents of change — that’s the way I want to fight.” A few paragraphs later she calls mothering, helping her sons become good people who can make a difference, “the most revolutionary work I could do.” My grandmother often told me almost exactly that when I was young parent, that the work I was doing raising my kids would make more impact than anything else, and I shouldn’t forget that.

American Spy is a terrific read! I didn’t love the ending, which felt abrupt — I don’t need everything tied up in a bow, but I also don’t like being left hanging. But I’m hoping it indicates that Wilkinson plans a sequel.

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This past week or so I’ve been reading Sy Montgomery‘s illustrated memoir How to Be a Good Creature: a Memoir in Thirteen Animalswhich my book club is discussing next week, and Strapless: John Singer Sargent and the Fall of Madame X by Deborah Davis. The friend who went to the Five Colleges booksale with me last year went again this year and got Strapless. I had picked it up myself at some point (possibly on a free cart), so when I asked her lately what she was reading I decided to read it as well.

I’ve written about Sy Montgomery’s last few books here at bookconscious — if you’ve been here with me you know she is an excellent writer who combines eye-opening, thought provoking insights into the animal world with similarly observant and self-aware insights into the human animal. Many of her books are part memoir — she is a large-hearted person who shares her own thoughts and emotions and that’s part of what makes her writing so delightful. Reading her work often feels like listening to a friend telling you about their life.

How to Be a Good Creature is more like listening to a wise teacher. Montgomery reflects on how from a young age she felt more at ease with animals than other children, how she took a dream trip as a “citizen scientist” in the Australian Outback that changed her life, and how the many vertebrates and invertebrates (a tarantula named Clarabelle as well as more recently, the octopuses made famous in her best-selling The Soul of an Octopusshe’s known have contributed to her life and added to her understanding of the world. “Just being with any animal is edifying, for each has a knowing that surpasses human understanding,” she writes. “Knowing someone who belongs to another species can enlarge your soul in surprising ways.”

There are some tough things in this book; if you’ve read any of Montgomery’s other books you know she didn’t have the best time as a child and had a longstanding rift with her parents that she handled with grace and empathy. Montgomery has also lived with bouts of depression. But ultimately she has come through some very real challenges with her spirit and her large heart in tact with help from the animals she has known, and she writes about that here. So if you’re in the mood for a book that will restore your faith, if not in humanity (although there are also many wonderful humans in Sy Montgomery’s life and she writes affectionately about them as well), at least in the general goodness of creation, this is a book for you. And of course, if you’ve had an animal help you through difficulties you’ll be nodding along.

If on the other hand you want to read a book that will remind you that obsession with fame and a press that inundates readers with sordid and titillating stories and profits from feeding a perceived mass desire to judge people and relish in their bad fortune are nothing new, Deborah Davis’s Strapless is for you. It’s certainly also a book about John Singer Sargent, and about the wealthy, vain, eccentric French Creole woman, Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau, who Sargent painted in his iconic portrait of Gilded Age Paris, Madame X. Even if you’ve never been to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see that famous painting you’ve probably seen an image of it at some point. You may or may not know it caused a sensation and humiliating criticism for both artist and subject when Sargent showed it at the Paris Salon in 1884 in large part because it originally portrayed her with one strap fallen off her shoulder.

This is incredible to us today, but Davis does an excellent job of showing exactly how bizarre it was then, given the types of entertainment popular in Paris at the time. This aspect of the book is a fascinating and somewhat alarming examination of how humans have always created strangely detrimental ways of engaging with each other in society. A very popular activity in 1800s Paris was viewing dead bodies at the morgue, another was reading ridicule of famous people in newspapers, and still another was reading sensational reports of crimes. The next time you despair of the endless cycle of bad news and the obsession over Kim Kardashian’s shape, remember this is nothing new.

Beyond this disheartening reminder that dehumanizing popular culture is not a contemporary invention, Davis provides a really interesting look at the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century art world, at Sargent’s career and work, at his friend Henry James’ role in helping Sargent gain the attention he deserved, and the many other people who befriended him, commissioned his work, or admired it. I am an admirer, and I also am a big fan of Isabella Stewart Gardner, whose own scandalous portrait (which like Madame X does not appear scandalous today), is one of two portraits he painted of Gardner on display at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Which also holds one of his famous large scale works, El Jaleo. Gardner actually built a space to display El Jaleo before she even owned it.

Anyway, as my friend noted, there is a lot packed into this book, and it’s a really interesting read. I learned new things about Sargent even though I also read Sargent’s Women not that long ago. That book was also good, but focused more on the wealthy American and English women he painted (including Gardner). If you enjoy art, or even if you don’t but you’re fascinated by culture and history, you will enjoy Strapless.

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